Willie Nelson, left, draws a smile from Neil Young as the two play Young's song "Homegrown" at Farm Aid 2012. (Photo: Ebet Roberts)
"They know now, after 27 years, that we weren't kidding," said Willie Nelson, chatting aboard his biodiesel-fueled tour bus, backstage at Farm Aid 2012 in Hershey, PA. "There really is a serious problem out there."
The 27th annual Farm Aid concert Saturday packed the 30,000-capacity Hersheypark Stadium with a bill topped by the organization's indefatigable foursome of artist activists -- Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews.
"These artists are just like farmers; they never give up," said Carolyn Mugar, executive director of Farm Aid, in comments that preceded a four-hour live "Farm Aid Backstage"
During "Like A Hurricane" and other songs, the Farm Aid crowd gets blown away as Neil Young, right, rocks with Crazy Horse members Billy Talbot on bass, center, and Frank Sampedro on guitar. (Photo: Ebet Roberts)
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Farm Aid has established its own unique network of sponsors who support its cause including, this year: Giant Food Stores, Anvil Knitwear (which created the t-shirts with organic cotton from the Texas Organic Marketing Cooperative), Chipotle Mexican Grill, Horizon Organic, Weis Markets, Organic Valley, Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream, Silk Soymilk, Amy's Kitchen, Bell & Evans Air Chilled, Martin Guitar, Messina Wildlife's Plotsaver (a barrier system for protecting crops and gardens) and the UNFI Foundation, which promotes organic and sustainable food.
Exhibits from sponsors, farming groups and environmental organizations could be found just outside the stadium in the collection of tents called Homegrown Village, which is now a staple  of the Farm Aid experience. While it began as a response to a specific crisis in the mid '80s, Farm Aid since has been in the vanguard of the Good Food Movement, which promotes locally grown food and sustainable farming practices.
Gathered Backstage at Farm Aid 2021 were, from left, Elliott Roberts, manager for Neil Young; Farm Aid executive director Carolyn Mugar; Mark Rothbaum, manager for Willie Nelson; Farm Aid associate director Glenda Yoder; and Farm Aid board member Dave Matthews. (Photo: Ebet Roberts)
Farm Aid's supporters also are looking at ways the music industry can support America's family farmers the other 364 days of the year. The organization has already proven with Homegrown Concessions that it can serve organic food at major events, with chili sold at this year's Super Bowl . It has begun discussions with other venue operators about increasing the availability of family-farm-grown Homegrown Concessions at live events.
On his tour bus, Willie Nelson and his wife Annie also described their work to promote the availability and use of biodiesel in the hundreds of trucks and tour businesses that transport the nation's concert industry through organizations including the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance .
And they discussed moving beyond the use of organic cotton for tour merchandise. Nelson says he has plans to market t-shirts, in a venture with Woody Harrelson and Ziggy Marley, manufactured abroad from industrial hemp, an agricultural cash crop that is distinctly different from the marijuana plant yet still all-but-illegal to grow  in the United States.
Farm Aid now also is forging connections to other environmental issues, from climate change, linked to this summer's drought, to water contamination from the extraction of natural gas in the process known as hydro-fracking.
Neil Young roared through his Farm Aid, touring with his band Crazy Horse for the first time in eight years. (Photo: Ebet Roberts)
"You can't run a farm when your water goes bad," declared Craig L. Stevens at his Homegrown Village table, as he hoisted a discolored jug of water he said came from a neighbor's contaminated well. Stevens described a recent encounter at an anti-fracking meeting with Sean Lennon, who has since launched Artists Against Fracking . Lennon's group is using the power of the musical community to raise awareness, the model that Farm Aid built.
Farm Aid's musical community was much in evidence throughout the day on stage. Nelson sang with Grace Potter; Potter joined her summer tour-mate Chesney during his set; and Chesney did a duet on "Small Town" with John Mellencamp. Mellencamp introduced Young and Crazy Horse, acknowledging the other musicians were backstage eager to hear this band roar once again. Nelson came out to play with Young on "Homegrown," his battered acoustic guitar holding its own against the electric thunder of Crazy Horse. Then Young returned the favor during Nelson's closing rendition of "Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die."
During the performance by Farm Aid co-founder John Mellencamp, left, he was joined by country superstar Kenny Chesney for a duet on Mellencamp's hit "Small Town." (Photo: Ebet Roberts)
During his set, Young offered the most pointed comments from the stage. In the wake of this year's drought, the despair among American farmers is real, he said. "Some of these men just can't deal with the fact that they're going to lose [farms] that their families had for generation and generation and generation," he said.
Young asked the crowd to take specific action, year-round, to support family farms.
"When you go shopping, you've got a choice to make," he said, as half of a harvest moon rose above the crowd. "What we want is for you to buy food that matters. Good food. It's mostly organic or sustainable and it can even be conventionally [grown]. As long as it's local, so you support your farmers.
"We're trying to show the way," he said. "And we really need your help. I hope you know that's why you're here, because you're part of a great movement."
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